- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

SAN MATEO, Calif. — The nation's first government-run clinical trial of "medipot," or medical marijuana, began slowly and ironically here last week when a 37-year-old AIDS activist forswore his longtime use of marijuana for six weeks.
After his pot-free interval, Philip Alden will spend six more weeks smoking government-rolled joints to test how they affect both nausea and the pain and numbness he often feels in his hands and feet. The marijuana will come from a federally owned field in Mississippi.
The $500,000 study, which will take about 18 months to complete, will eventually involve 60 patients in a trial carefully controlled to exclude recreational marijuana users.
It began just two months after the Supreme Court ruled that federal narcotics laws supercede California's 1996 Proposition 215, which attempted to legalize medical marijuana for patients with recommendations from their doctors. Illustrating the unsettled state of the scientific controversy over medipot, that U.S. ruling was quickly followed by a law passed in Canada allowing patients with diseases as varied as AIDS and arthritis to legally cultivate marijuana gardens after obtaining a doctor's approval.
The study was approved by the Food and Drug Administration early this year following a three-year effort by county officials who aggressively lobbied for the clinical trial.
Mr. Alden, who suffers from a form of AIDS that prevents his body from absorbing many nutrients, reports he has seen his muscles wither unless he lifts weights and takes heavy doses of steroids and other medications that often make him feel nauseated.
"I really hope the study produces some hard data," he said. "If marijuana does nothing but calm nausea and increase appetite, it's still worth it."
Many medipot advocates claim the plant can also stem the progress of some forms of cancer and multiple sclerosis.
However, some in the health community say that more testing and research need to be done to prove the medical effectiveness of marijuana.
"So far, there is only anecdotal evidence that marijuana has any benefit," says Dr. Dennis Israelski, director of the study and chief of infectious diseases and AIDS medicine for the San Mateo County Hospitals and Clinics. "I am no advocate of medical marijuana. What's really great about this is that we have the scientific approach, but it's also being generated from sincere compassion amongst our political leaders."
But County Supervisor Mark Nevin definitely is an advocate. He spent three years fighting for federal approval of the county study and says: "We hope they will lead to proving once and for all that the substance in marijuana relieves pain and suffering for the very sick."
The trial has received no organized opposition within the county.
But California's Narcotics Officers Association disapproves of the effort. "It is our firm belief that any movement that liberalizes or legalizes substance abuse laws would set us back to the days of the 1970s when we experienced this country's worst drug problem," the group said in a position paper.
Mr. Nevin, however, said the study is not an effort to legalize marijuana but to determine whether it should be considered a therapeutic agent for some patients.
Dr. Israelski said the new study might also reveal whether pot can be used safely in a "real-life setting and not wind up in the hands of friends, or children or even pets."
In an attempt to exclude drug abusers from the trial, would-be subjects are being given three weeks of intensive physical and psychological tests. These tests also aim to eliminate patients whose conventional therapy might be adversely affected by the use of marijuana.
Patients are required to keep daily logs of their pot use, consumption of alcohol and any other recreational drugs and to turn in the stubs of joints during their weekly visits to doctors.
Dr. Israelski said county officials will also make unannounced visits to the homes of patients to check out conditions and marijuana use.
"We have to make sure we're not just being used to get free marijuana, but we also have to put some faith and trust in our patients," he said.

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